Could a 'Maleficent 2' Fix the First Film's Mistakes?Jacob Hall |
Few movie villains carry the cultural cache of Maleficent, so it's hugely disappointing that the new film that bears her name as a title goes out of its way to strip away everything that anyone has ever loved (and loved to hate) about her. 'Maleficent' defangs its title character. It Nerfs her. It makes something gleefully vicious into something cuddly. It's character assassination at its most glossy and brutal ... and if, after a successful opening weekend, if a 'Maleficent 2' comes around, this may be the version of the character we're stuck with.
At press time, Disney has not yet announced a 'Maleficent 2,' but it'll probably only be a matter of time. The film overcame mostly negative reviews and opened to a strong $70 million over the weekend. Sure, that's not an 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'PIrates of the Caribbean' number, but it's also not a 'John Carter' or 'The Lone Ranger' number. The chances that Disney is going to look into developing a sequel are high, so let's assume it has a pretty good chance of happening.
[Spoilers for 'Maleficent' lurk ahead.]
'Maleficent' follows the 'Wicked' formula, telling the "true" story of a popular tale and revealing that the villain wasn't nearly as evil as the false legends suggest. It's the kind of storytelling template that worked for 'Wicked' because the story refused to take away the Wicked Witch's sharp edges and treated its characters with respect and depth. 'Maleficent,' on the other hand, has no room for shades of grey or respect for its source material. It repaints 'Sleeping Beauty' with a broad, dull brush, reveling in twisting the original tale for maximum surprise, seemingly unaware that the modified version isn't nearly as fun or exciting as the original.
When we meet Maleficent in 1959's 'Sleeping Beauty,' she's irked that she wasn't invited to the christening of the newborn Princess Aurora and she crashes the party. The "mistress of all evil" proceeds to take over the room, terrorize everyone and generally behave like a petty jerk, taking her snubbing waaay too personally. Her truly bizarre curse on the newborn princess (she'll fall into a deathlike sleep if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel before her 16th birthday) feels like a joke -- she's like a magically powered prankster, gleefully causing random trouble for everyone for no particular reason. It's chaos for chaos' sake. Someone has to be evil and it might as well be her!
The same scene in 'Maleficent' is far more complicated and that's why it doesn't work. The new film re-imagines her as a fairy whose wings were chopped off by her former-love interest, King Stefan and she's there on a mission of personal vengeance. By transforming Maleficent into a scorned woman battling against the man who abused her, the spark of joy that drove the original incarnation of the character is gone. She's no longer the colorful adversary, but a victim. This new Maleficent is "evil" because Stefan made her that way -- the original Maleficent is evil because being evil is awesome and she makes it look like a total blast.
This is all by design, of course. The new film is a tale of redemption. Angelina Jolie's Maleficent is evil for all of five minutes and even then, her grand schemes mostly involve snarling at babies and making it rain indoors. She softens with remarkable swiftness and is a full-on goodie-goodie by the halfway mark of the movie. 'Maleficent' wants to tell the story of how a good person became a villain and then became a hero, but it botches the transition by moving way too fast. She never gets the chance to actually be the bad guy. Aside from the christening scene (which is now a total bummer because of the new context), Maleficent is a fairly standard fantasy hero. If not for that iconic costume, she could be anyone.
This is total character assassination. People love Maleficent because she's unapologetically wicked. Sure, she's not the most complicated character in the Disney toy box, but that's part of her appeal. She never seems to have a grand plan or even a personal beef with the people she torments. She's just the coolest customer in a movie filled with squares. The kings and princesses and princes are playing classical and she's jazz. Plus, she can turn into a dragon.
The fact that Maleficent doesn't turn into a dragon in the new movie is all you need to know about this take on the character (she transforms one of her allies instead). She's watered down, rebuilt into an archetype as hackneyed as the characters around her. Unlike her animated counterpart, she's a total bummer. At least 'Wicked' (in book or play format) never fully let Elphaba off the hook for being a criminal. The perspective is shifted, but the character keeps her bite. Disney may be using that playbook, but they don't get it right. It's disheartening watching the greatest animated villain in history transformed into a big softie who only wants someone to love.
'Maleficent' ends with Stefan (and Sharlto Copley's career) dead and Aurora officially ruling the kingdom. Thanks to a magical deus ex machina, Maleficent has her wings back and has ditched her classic costume in favor of something more burlap-chic. She's been reset, her villainy completely stripped and replaced with basic heroics. And this is the status quo moving forward. If Disney wants a 'Maleficent 2,' they're probably going to continue to shove this retooled take on the character down our throats.
In a better, nicer world where Disney didn't have to worry about a financial bottom line and could do whatever crazy thing they wanted, 'Maleficent 2' would take her back to her dark and dastardly ways...but that's likely not going to happen. The grown-up Aurora's closing narration confirms that. That means, going forward, we get to live in a world where Disney wants us to be okay with their greatest villains becoming their blandest heroes. As a Disney fan, this is not okay. As a movie fan, this is not okay. As a fan of villains who are actually allowed to be villains without countless caveats, this is not okay.
The superior version of Maleficent will live on thanks to home video (and the character's absurd popularity with everyone from animation buffs to drag queens), but it's depressing that Disney is going to lean on this take for the foreseeable future. They've killed Maleficent and replaced her with an impostor.
Hey, look who's been the real villain all along!